Helping your preteen son navigate the manosphere means taking his need for independence seriously.
Credit: Vicky Leta / Mashable

According to Gary Barker, parents often unknowingly yield significant influence over their sons to digital cultures that may not prioritize their children’s welfare. As the president and CEO of Equimundo, a nonprofit think tank focused on promoting gender equality, Barker dedicates much of his time to addressing this issue.

When browsing online, young boys may come across content that is entertaining, enjoyable, and confidence-boosting. However, they may also encounter the “manosphere,” an online space embodying traditional masculine norms such as self-sufficiency, dominance, toughness, and stoicism, loosely represented by influencer content. While some of this content may offer harmless health or well-being advice, it can also harbor harmful material, often linked to racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, and at times, violent remarks.

Surprisingly, the gateway to more perilous aspects of the manosphere often starts with seemingly light-hearted or irreverent content designed primarily for amusement and not indoctrination. Other content may present misleading advice on money, dating, or politics, making boys feel knowledgeable about the inner workings of the world and teaching them to exploit that understanding.


5 social-emotional skills for parents

In essence, helping boys navigate the manosphere represents a unique parenting challenge—assisting them in building critical thinking about the digital content they find enjoyable and satisfying, all while avoiding alienation from strong judgments about their media consumption choices. This balance is especially challenging for parents of young boys between 8 and 12 years old, who crave independence but may not fully comprehend the ramifications of certain decisions.

While the instinct may be to outright ban questionable content without discussion, Barker advises against this approach, considering that these online spaces offer boys a sense of control over their lives, a desire particularly prevalent at this age.

“Often, parents take a restrictive approach…which feels intrusive and can lead boys further down the rabbit hole instead of engaging in meaningful conversations,” Barker notes.

It’s crucial for parents to recognize and respect their sons’ developmental need for independence and competence. Acknowledging this can bolster a boy’s belief that he is trusted to think critically. However, it doesn’t mean allowing a boy free rein to explore the manosphere unsupervised. Instead, parents should familiarize themselves with the platforms their sons frequent, inquire about their interests, and be able to monitor private online interactions.

According to Dr. Andrew P. Smiler, a psychologist specializing in teen boys and men, boys at this age aren’t ready for unrestrained freedom. In cases where extreme content is prevalent, Smiler suggests understanding what appeals to boys about such content and redirecting healthy interests to safer platforms or resources.

2. Engage in open-ended conversations with your son.

The manosphere often involves boys and young men in open conversations. This necessitates that parents approach their sons with openness and without judgment.

When a boy shares a meme he finds humorous yet offensive, a parent’s first approach should be curiosity, seeking to understand the humor it presents. Furthermore, it’s essential to recognize that boys might not grasp the subtle messages or context that render a meme hurtful to others.

Similarly, parents should engage in open-ended discussions about concerning aspects of online content, fostering an understanding of moral or ethical issues. It’s important to encourage a child’s moral compass rather than impose beliefs on them, although this is often a challenging task.

For parents of Black boys and boys of color, discussions about racial pride and experiences of racism must be continuous, allowing space for their sons to express their thoughts and engage in healthy disagreements.

3. Truly listen to your son.

Listening to your son is crucial but requires attentive focus, considering not only what is said but also body language. Parents should resist the urge to interject with their own opinions too quickly, being patient with their son’s exploration, and occasionally allowing for the junior version of “mansplaining,” which can be crucial to a boy’s sense of leadership and understanding.

If parents consistently provide experiences that encourage a boy’s independence, character, and critical thinking skills, they enable him to navigate the manosphere with important skills and preparedness. Truly understanding and respecting a son’s perspective can go a long way in promoting both independence and critical thinking abilities.

Source: Rebecca Ruiz, Senior Reporter at Mashable.


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